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Searching for the source of India’s sacred stream

We were somewhere on the road between Uttarkashi and Gangotri, when the panic took a hold. It was a mixture of mild dysentery, homesickness and a hangover. I felt it shudder through me, like someone had increased the voltage in my central nervous system. My throat felt dry and speechless, my stomach churned and my head felt like a crashed computer. On one side, the road dropped away perilously into a ravine, next to me, my two friends, Marcus and Alex, nodded away happily with their earphones on – seemingly unaware as to just how close we were to the edge – and the bus that we were in approached another blind, hair-pin bend. In terror, I watched the driver’s knee, waiting for him to apply the brake, but nothing. If anything he increased the speed. Once again we hit the corner at full pelt. I closed my eyes and leant into the window. My hands gripped the seat in front of me, my gnarled bones almost breaking out of my skin. I was numb with fear. I waited for the crash of the oncoming vehicle. Oh mama. Then I felt the road straighten out, climbing on further. I took deep breath. I had a few minutes grace before the next bend; the next dice-roll with death. I reached into my bag, took a quick swig of rank Indian booze and then lit a cigarette. I had one or two exquisite draws on the tobacco, before the driver turned and shouted at me, naturally ignoring the road:

“Please, sir. No smoking.”

“But I suppose that dying is okay though.” I muttered, having one more rebellious drag, before stubbing it out and throwing it through the window.
And still we carried on rising, up into the Himalayan foothills, away from the frantic pulse of the cities, away from the world…
It was early evening when we arrived in the small town of Gangotri, the start of our trek to the source of the Ganges. My nerves had worn themselves down to an almost eerie feeling of detachment and displacement. The sky was bruised and ominous, the hillsides seemed to echo with a desolate, eternal whisper and the river rushed down the valley in adolescent anger; its dark water crashing against the main bridge and sending up cool spray into our faces. Its roar was formidable. It seemed to be mocking me: a force greater than my oh-so-mortal self. Once again, I suddenly began to feel a long way from home.

Further up the valley and out of view, the river emerged from its source at Gaumukh, above that stood the great Shivling mountain (sometimes called “Shiva’s Penis” or “home to Shiva”) and beyond that further still, the great Himalayan range. Even though it was beyond my field of vision, I felt the distant mountain square up to me. I tensed my chest and lifted my chin. For a moment, I felt like some Jack London-type facing up to the Alaskan wastes. Out there was the void, the unknown. Maybe the air was a little thin and my body too weary, but I didn’t find these thoughts at all overstated or pretentious! I looked to my comrades. They seemed as lost to the magnificence as me. We had a cigarette and laughed to each other like three great scruffy-haired heroic conquistadors. The following day we were going to begin the walk to the source of the great river.

“I can’t go another step.” Marcus groaned.

He threw down his backpack and collapsed like a rag-doll on the dusty path. His t-shirt was drenched in sweat, his eyes bulged in agony and his muscles were creaking audibly. I looked across at Alex. He had found a spot on a boulder and was lighting a cigarette, looking cool and relaxed. A brief smile passed across his face, like a snake slivering across the sand. Normally, the most compassionate of men, he found Marcus’s troubles strangely amusing. I couldn’t help but agree – schadenfreude and all that – you suffer less if someone is suffering more.

“I need water.” Marcus pleaded, as he stared in desperation at the sky.

We had been walking for about ten minutes.
It was the following morning. The great bowl of sky was a clear blue. The sun was bright and relentless. We were loaded to the hilt (incidentally, most of this hired from a store in Uttarkashi). A rucksack each, a folded three-man tent, ground sheets, cooking equipment, three foam mattresses, food, water, cigarettes, a small CD player, a pile of books, a change of clothes, a couple of bottles of beer, a canister of kerosene, a small grill, cleaning utensils, sun-cream, a torch so big it could have been used to guide in ships and a mallet the size of Bengal. As you can probably guess, we had never done anything like this before. All that was missing was a small freezer and black-tie evening wear.

After a few minutes of walking up the initial stages of the mountain path, we were passed by two nimble, chirpy Indians. They were well dressed and had only two small bags with them, no doubt containing delicious snacks made up for the walk to the top and back. They looked at us, bedecked like snails, and smiled.

“We are going all the way to Tibet.” I lied.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen…

To get to the source of the Ganges you have to follow the valley path up for about 17kms, before you reach the point where the Ganges (known at that point as the Bhagiratha) emerges from the glacier. In normal conditions, I imagine it would be a fairly easy stroll, for us – loaded up as we were – it was a giant. It was a case of a few steps, then rest, a few more, then rest again; have a cigarette and enjoy the stunning scenery. Fortunately, due to the volume of people who would visit the site (up to a few thousand – mostly pilgrims – a day during certain times of the year), the route was accessible to practically anyone and there were opportunities all along the path to grab a chai from one of the numerous tea huts (or even a can of coke if you so fancy). Okay, okay, the more adventurous mountain walker would baulk at these civilized comforts, but for three unhealthy, naïve, city-kids like us they were essential. Although, we did drink from the mountain streams…after using water purifying tablets, mind.

“Right, kids,” Alex smiled, “I guess we stay here.”

It was the end of day one. We sent up the tent and cooked a simple meal. The sun was in descent; the valley was bathed in a deep crimson glow. It had been a long, tiring day. We had probably covered about 9kms. It worked out at about 1km an hour. Still, the views were beautiful and my near-nervous breakdown from the day before had passed. Indeed, that is the wonder of travel; its boom-and-bust nature. One minute you can be writhing in your seat during an uncomfortable bus ride or tearing your hair out with frustration as you try and deal with an unhelpful, stubborn bureaucrat, the next you are sitting on a hillside in the Himalayan foothills having a drink and a cigarette, watching the sun die over the jagged horizon, whilst listening to Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart…

The second day was much the same. The heat was remorseless, the climb steady and meandering. We took it in turns to suffer. One bend, then another. Step after step. The resplendence of the valley was balanced out with the burning of our muscles and the wheezing of our lungs. But we were beating it…

Near the top, where the valley opened up, we set up our tent for a second night. This time we were too tired to eat or talk. There was no beer or music. The silence of the mountains was overwhelming. We were lost to the arcane wonder of the view, thrown into a near-trance by the power of nature, consumed by bad poetry…and suffering from considerable exhaustion, dehydration and mild altitude sickness.
On the third day we made it to the source.

Gaumukh is a centre of pilgrimage for sadhus – ascetic Hindu holy men – all across India. Accordingly, every few minutes they are passing you either on the way up, or the way back down. Likewise, there are numerous other Indian tourists and a few westerners making the trip. You can camp out basically where you see fit, but there is also a small hostel near the top of the climb. We camped out for just the two nights and stayed at the hostel for one. The latter is not too far from the source of the river and the views of the Shivling from that point are stunning and outrageous.

Part of the pleasure of the climb is watching the gradual thinning-out of the vegetation, until you reach the almost lunar desolation near the glacier. At that point, you really feel both the altitude and the sense of reverence. Coupled with the dizziness from the height, the images are almost narcotic and surreal: a few scattered flags fluttering in the light breeze, sadhus sitting around in the lotus position, an insanely clear blue sky, Himalayan peaks, magnesium-white rock faces, the holy expanse of the surrounding wilderness and, yes, the Ganges bursting out of its glacier. It really was some place to visit.

“This is it.” Alex beamed. “Not only the source of the Ganges, but the source of India itself. I can’t believe that we are here.”

I took a deep breath. I couldn’t disagree. Indeed, I was tempted to climb further, on and on. You can follow the path up onto the glacier itself and continue you over, if you so wish. However, we were told that that route was a little more hazardous and was suited for the more serious mountaineer. So we settled for an hour or so, sitting in the sun, watching the ceaseless flow of the river, smoking cigarettes and going slowly crazy in the thin air.
And then before we knew it, after a night at the hostel, we were on our way back down; dropping back into civilization, back into the world. The sides of the valley got slowly greener, more fecund, and the temperature increased. Still the path weaved down, down, down…
Eventually, we made it to Gangotri and were soon on a bus to Uttarkashi. It was the same white-knuckle ride as before. By the time we got to the town, my nerves were shot once again. We had another seven or eight hours ahead of us to get to Rishikesh. None of us could face it, so we scrounged a cheap ride in a taxi. It was a big, spacious, cool, white Ambassador. We stretched out and enjoyed the trip, following the Ganges back down the valley, down towards the shimmering plains, back towards the transitory bustle and relentless pursuit of humanity…

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